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What’s on offer in Stockbridge: Author and writer Jeremy Hobson visits

PUBLISHED: 11:00 12 April 2016 | UPDATED: 11:00 12 April 2016

Stockbridge Down at sunrise

Stockbridge Down at sunrise

Archant

Author and writer, Jeremy Hobson, discovers the delights on offer in the Test town of Stockbridge

Not many modern high streets can boast three shops selling fishing rods and equipment – but then again, there are not many high streets where you can see trout swimming about in the middle of the road.

Well, alright, whilst rainbow and brown trout might indeed be viewed from the pavement in Stockbridge High Street, they are in fact to be found in five streams that run under the road and into the River Test, but they and the (over) friendly mallard ducks make a wander round this delightful Hampshire town even more fascinating and interesting!

History has it that Stockbridge, and its famous High Street, was built along an old drover’s road - itself created from compressed chalk dug locally and laid down to create a river passing for, amongst others, Welsh drovers travelling through with animals on their way to fairs and markets held periodically in the south-east. Long before that, though, there were settlements on nearby Stockbridge Down from at least the second millennium B.C. whilst, to the north-west, overlooking the town from the Salisbury side, are the ancient earthworks of Danebury Ring. 


The sporting life

Like the road, the River Test virtually runs through the centre of Stockbridge and meanders its way through Hampshire’s famous water meadows. No wonder then that the town is a Mecca for many game fishermen and that the Houghton Club, one of the oldest fly-fishing clubs in existence, has its base in the Grosvenor Hotel situated on the High Street. So prized and sought-after is the fishing that it is often said its ‘water is gin-clear… and more expensive than gin’.

The Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) used to frequently visit Stockbridge because of its racing connections and Sir John Dugdale Astley, in the second volume of his autobiography, Fifty Years of My Life, published in 1894, remarked that, in 1879, he’d had “a real cheery party at Stockbridge” when the “Bilbury Club Dinner was held in the Grosvenor Arms Hotel.” A keen racing man, he wrote of going over to Houghton Down where his horses were trained by Tom Cannon – great-grandfather of racing legend Lester Piggott – and of attending Stockbridge racecourse, the site of which was at Danebury,

The Bilbury Club held their race meetings on the course until 1898 when, due to the combined insistence of the Jockey Club that every racecourse should include a straight mile – and the refusal of a certain Mrs. Audrey Barker Mill to permit the leasing of her land in order to fit in the extra distance, both the club and its race meetings moved to nearby Salisbury. In his book, About a Village Boy, (Matador, 2014), Chris Dunning points out that, “the remains of the old Bilbury Club Grandstand, the oldest in the country, are still just about there, covered in ivy.”


Old families and connections

As well as the famous faces no doubt seen en route to the races over the years, the town has been home to many. Mention the dry-fly ‘Lunn’s Particular’, to a fishing enthusiast and it’s likely that he or she will immediately know of its family of origin: William, Alfred and Mick Lunn, all of whom were river-keepers for the famous Houghton Club.

Look westwards up the High Street and, on the right, you’ll find ‘Woodfire’, a popular restaurant specializing in all things Mediterranean. In a previous life it was the garage of N J Stoke – but before that, according to one source, “formally a place of ill-repute”. A Grade II listed building, it seems that Lillie Langtry once lived there - a fact that is noted in the name of another eating place further down ‘the street’.

Stockbridge is not, however, a High Street simply full of eateries and pubs. A gentle wander up one side and down the other reveals a host of independently-owned shops, and there’s something for everyone whether it be sporting equipment, art, clothing, gifts or kitchenware. Whilst the candle-stick maker might be missing, there’s a convenience store, fishmonger, greengrocer and the fifth generation, Hampshire Life Food & Drink award Highly Commended butchers, Robinson’s…and to accompany all that, an excellent wine merchants.

Above Stockbridge, heading towards Romsey, can be found the Compton Manor estate. In its hey-day, Compton was owned by aviation pioneer Sir Thomas Sopwith and visitors’ included the world famous and royalty.

Back down in the valley – and just ‘out of town’, Houghton Lodge is a cottage ornée style house positioned on the banks of the river Test. Built sometime prior to 1799 at the instruction of Maurice Bernard, a Lincoln’s Inn barrister, it’s known to have been originally commissioned as a fishing lodge for summer vacations. The structure was timber-framed, perfectly symmetrical and the roof originally thatched. No longer thus clad, the house is, nevertheless, still in private ownership but, fortunately for visitors, their quite glorious gardens are seasonally open to public view.

At nearby Broughton, the pure chalk springs have resulted in the creation of Hilden Natural Mineral Water who supply their bottled water to both local outlets and those much further afield. Begun in 1989 by the Heppe family, it is a relatively modern business. They weren’t, though, the first to hit on the idea and I have, picked out of the silt of the Test, an old glass ‘codd bottle’ (the type with a marble in the neck) embellished with the words, ‘Coleberd, Broughton, Hants’.

It is of a type and style known to be used to contain either soda or mineral water but research has failed to discover much more than, in 1893, an E R F Coleberd, postmaster at Broughton, was mentioned in The Chemist and Druggist - a publication supplied to the pharmaceutical societies. As health-giving herbal-based drinks were fashionable then, it’s reasonable to assume that the bottle contained a locally-produced elixir which was sold in Coleberd’s post office.


Community spirit

Initially granted the right to a market by Richard I – which was extended into a three-day fair by Henry VIII, the spread of the Black Death throughout Hampshire during the 14th and 15th century left Stockbridge with far too few inhabitants for such things to continue. Gradually, however, the town became prosperous once more – due in no small part to the roads that pass through and intersect it. It is, though, still very much a rural community and the Land Rovers and 4 x 4s parked on the roadside are working ones (as evidenced by their mud-caked chassis’) driven by farmers and country workers rather than as a ‘status symbol’.

Nevertheless, all work and no play does nobody any good and the community spirit ensures that there’s plenty of interest happening throughout the year. All in all, well worth a visit – even if only for the experience of being able to feed the resident trout from the High Street pavement!


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